We never really work with ‘just an individual’ because human beings always exist within systems of relationship. (Malcolm Parlett)
You’re not alone. Neither are your colleagues or clients. OK, you may be alone in a room together (if I can use ‘alone’ and ‘together’ in the same breath like this) for a meeting, a training workshop, a catch-up, a coaching conversation. As you focus intently on the other person or group – their goals, interests, ideas, concerns etc. – it can be as if the wider world and its noisy distractions fade out of existence, at least for a moment. There is just you…and me…and us. Our space.
It is a kind of sacred space and it can feel – spiritual. It has a person-centred quality about it. We may conceive of what we bring as the gift of our presence, attention and expertise. It can be immensely affirming for the other and it ensures they feel seen, heard, valued and understood. It can feel like offering…love. But far be it from us to use the L word in a corporate context! So we will sanitise it for now with culturally-safer words like empathy and respect. Still with me?
Now a sting in the tail. There are some important risks here. In our heartfelt desire to be client-focused, how often do we hear trainers and coaches say things like, ‘My job is to help you reach your goals’ or, in marketing-speak, ‘Your success is my success’? I get the principle but it can lead us to approach our work in a blinkered way, as if the person exists in a relational, cultural and contextual bubble. Where are the ethics in this if our sole focus is on the client or group?
Take the person whose success will undermine the success of peers in other teams or the wider strategy of the organisation. Or the person whose success will impact negatively on people and groups in the wider community, e.g. politically, economically or environmentally. Our well-meaning interventions can inadvertently collude with or even facilitate hidden or unintended consequences. So: what can we do to address this? What are we willing to take responsibility for?
I have the privilege of knowing an amazing young woman in the Philippines. She’s a single mum who gets up at 2am to go to a market, buy food items, return home to cook them then back to the street to sell them to passers-by. She also works in a school to earn enough money to support her own mum and her 3 children. She lives in a hostel and shares a room and facilities with numerous other residents in order to be where the work is so that she can pay her bills and send money home.
She regards herself as poor, of little account. She compares herself to wealthy, Western women and feels small. She has little formal education yet is bright spirited and speaks English fluently with natural ability. She’s passionate and really, really cares about people. She gives free food to children on the street who have no money. She teaches the homeless, the forgotten children, to see and treat themselves with dignity and respect. This woman, this angel, completely humbles me.
Yet how easy it is to mistake our wealth, our technology, our education, our comfortable lives for what it means to be human and to succeed. I can hear disturbing echoes from the New Testament – if we have all these things and yet lack love, we are nothing. This woman, this beautiful daughter of God, demonstrates the kind of character, the kind of love, that I only hope and dream of. At 2am, she will be back on the streets again, tired but uncomplaining. God – help me be like her.
It’s Christmas Day and I could have better used the title Christmas mess-edge for this short piece. The story of Jesus Christ isn’t just a sweet and sentimental account of a baby boy born in Bethlehem 2000+ years ago. If it’s true, it’s about God entering the very real messiness of our lives and world and offering the potential to transform them into something completely new. Something beyond our wildest dreams, hopes or expectations. Something that stretches and transcends the boundaries of all human existence and experience.
I’ve known something about this notion of stretching boundaries over this past year, about extending the edges of my own experience. I bought a new bike in the spring, challenged myself to cycle over 1000 miles in 6 months and over 50 miles in a single ride. I had never done anything like that before and yet I did it. I also challenged myself to swim 1 mile 3 times in the same week. And I did it. It felt like I had crossed over an important physical and psychological line, achieving things that had previously felt impossible for me.
I wrote and had published my first article with the British Association for Counselling and Psychology (BACP). I’d written lots of articles for different publications before but this felt like the next step up in a professional field that sits close to my heart. The editor of Coaching Today invited me to write on spirituality and I jumped at the chance. To top it off, I did my first ever series of radio interviews on spirituality too. It was a great opportunity and a novel experience so sit in a recording studio and to share my beliefs openly on air.
And if that was the end of the story, there would be no need for a Jesus, at least for me. But it’s far from the end. I’ve struggled and failed on so many fronts. Sometimes, I haven’t even struggled when I have known I should. I’ve known deeply and personally what Francis Spufford aptly calls the universal ‘human propensity to f* things up’ (Unapologetic, 2013). At times, I’ve failed in relationships, made mistakes at work, fallen short of my own standards, spoken when I should have kept quiet and kept quiet when I should have spoken.
What’s more, one of my closest friends has fought courageously with terminal illness. I’ve felt hopeful and helpless, trying to offer support where I could yet knowing I can’t make it OK. I’ve yearned to take the anxiety away but known that I can’t. I’ve watched Syria in the news, the damage that human beings are able to inflict on each others’ lives, on whole countries and regions. I’ve felt impotent and confused. Not all the time, but enough to know that redeeming the world is something I can take part in yet, ultimately, lies well beyond me.
And so as I reflect on Christmas, I know what it is to be an aspiring yet fragile human being. I’ve felt exciting moments on the edge of success and have known what it is to screw up and need forgiveness. I have felt the amazing love of others, often undeserved yet tangible all the same. At that first nativity, I believe God himself entered the messy complexity of our lives and world with the most profound message of love and hope possible. Not just in words but in a life well-lived and a promise of presence and eternal life. Merry Christ-mas!
Imagine over 2 billion people. It’s enough to make me feel dizzy, roughly a third of the world’s total population, Christians all over the globe marking a very significant event this weekend. Easter. But what does Easter mean for Christians? Why is it so important? How is it different to a colourful, pagan, fertility festival marked by chocolate, rabbits and eggs?
At the heart of the Christian Easter is a cross, a symbol used by Christians to highlight the centre-point of their faith. The cross is a reminder of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified on a cross 2,000 years ago. It’s a shocking symbol, an instrument of Roman torture and agonising death. It draws our attention to a God-man-saviour, prepared to give his life for us.
That’s where it gets hard. What if the biblical account is true? Can I dare myself to believe it? What if Jesus really was the Son of God? Could he really love someone as messed up as me? I can only draw one conclusion. If this story is true, the cross cries out in the starkest possible terms that no matter who we are or what we have done, we really matter to God.
And there is more hope. Easter Sunday marks an equally remarkable event. This Jesus who died is raised by God. Miraculously, he is brought back to life and, what is more, promises us life over death by trusting in him. He offers us light, life and hope in the midst and beyond the dark deaths and despair we may face in life, psychological, emotional and physical.
So that’s where I place my faith. Not in my weak and inconsistent efforts to be a good person, a clever person, an interesting or adventurous person. I know what I’m really like inside. Amazingly, God is never disillusioned with me because he never had any illusions in the first place. I place my faith in Jesus. If the Bible is true, he truly deserves my life.
It stands around the corner from an authentic Thai restaurant in central London. On the face of it, it’s an elegant building. As you walk past, however, you realise with surprise that the frontage is a façade, an elaborate shield concealing a plain office building that lies behind it. It’s a striking metaphor, a symbol of sorts for an inauthentic life. It challenged me powerfully yet silently to consider the masks I wear, the images I project to disguise my real self.
Some years ago, John Powell published a popular, short self help book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ He explored how we attempt to protect our fragile egos and avoid our fear rejection by acting out roles or playing games. These are defensive routines aimed at minimising social anxiety or negative evaluation. By putting on a front that we believe will impress others, we attempt to feel better about ourselves and to win others’ approval.
At one level, these strategies can prove successful in life and work. It’s one reason why we pay attention to our physical appearance, the way we behave and conduct ourselves in public, the way we present ourselves at job interviews etc. From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn what wins love and affirmation from others within our key relationships, social environments and culture. We learn how to play the game.
At another level, however, keeping up appearances can prove self-defeating. Over time we may feel alienated from ourselves, not sure how we really are, and alienated from others, not sure if we are really loved and accepted. We can feel lonely, frustrated and tired. It’s as if, paradoxically, the façades we create to develop and maintain relationships can have the opposite effect, preventing authentic and intimate contact with others.
This presents us with a dilemma, an anxiety-provoking risk. What if I remove the mask, tell you what I’m really thinking, show you how I’m really feeling? Would you love and accept me for who I am or would you look at me with disappointment in your eyes? Will making myself vulnerable release you to be vulnerable too? Can we find a new way of connecting that feels more real, more authentic, less defended, less like a façade?
It can feel like a breathtaking step. The possibility feels exciting and yet the potential feels daunting. I’m reminded of Jesus’ call in the gospels: ‘remove the mask and come into the light’. There is further New Testament teaching too: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. If God can love and accept me as I am, perhaps I can learn to love and accept myself and to love and accept others too. Perhaps that’s where it starts, feeling truly safe with God.
So therein lies the challenge. As a leader and a coach, am I willing to make myself vulnerable so that others can be vulnerable too? Can I demonstrate unconditional love with such honesty that others feel safe to remove their masks, to take down their façades? Can I find new ways to relate to others with an increasing sense of trust and authenticity, creating ever-deeper levels of contact? It’s certainly a goal worth praying and striving for.
I spent this week with a Christian social worker friend in South Germany. At one point, we visited a project for older people who want to learn how to use new technologies. The project is led by a group of volunteers from a similar age group who act as trainers, mentors and advisers. This friend who manages the initiative entered the room, smiled and said hello to the group, introduced me then walked around the room, purposefully shaking hands and greeting every person individually with genuine warmth.
The thing that struck me most was his profoundly-felt presence in the room. He has an unusual talent for standing, moving and gazing in such a way that demonstrates he is really here and really now. It communicates a deep sense of being and being-with that extends beyond words. The act of shaking hands, of physical contact, felt more than a cultural ritual and created a profound sense of emotional and relational contact with the group. I felt spell bound by this person, this quiet charisma, this dynamic he evoked.
It’s a sharp contrast with an approach to leadership, coaching or training that relies purely on professional competence or expertise. It’s so easy to lose contact with ourselves, God and others in the midst of the business of the day. We can become so preoccupied with a task that we lose sight of what really matters at a deeper human-spiritual level. As I watched this friend and felt his presence, I was reminded of words from the Bible: if I’m clever, competent and successful but do not love, I am nothing. (my paraphrase)
So my challenge as I return to England is to reflect more on my presence; to have a clearer and more focused sense of my deepest beliefs and values; to take a more intentional and resolute stance in relation to others that demonstrates love, warmth, care and authenticity. I want to be more aware of when I behave in professional mode but lose sight of a person or group; when I allow myself to get so busy, so task-focused that I lose sight of my own and others’ humanity. In short, I want to be more like Jesus.
I had strange dreams about mirrors and reflections last night and woke early in the darkness. I lay there for a while, semi-conscious, daydreaming about the brightness of the moon and how it reflects the light of the sun. I prayed silently, instinctively, ‘Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, may my life reflect the light of God’. Then I woke up.
I do think there’s something profound about mirrors and reflection as psychological, cultural and spiritual phenomena. The recent fantasy film, Snow White and the Huntsman created a vivid portrayal of a tormented queen returning repeatedly to seek reassurance in the mirror of legend: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
The queen’s sense of self, security and value were based on the response from the mirror. It’s as if she didn’t really know who she was, how she was, without reference to its external perspective. According to psychodynamic and social psychological theories, our sense of self is affected by the responses we evoke and encounter in others.
Take, for instance, a young child who gazes into its mother’s face. If it sees consistent expressions of warmth, attentiveness, affection and happiness, it may well develop the sense that ‘I am loved’ and, thereby, ‘I am loveable.’ If on the other hand the child consistently sees looks of disapproval, it may develop a negative sense of self.
Psychodynamic theorists (e.g. Winnicott) call this process ‘mirroring’.Just as a person knows what they look like by glancing in a mirror, a child sees something of itself, learns something about itself, its relationships and its place in the world, by observing what is mirrored in the face of others. It’s a process that continues throughout our lives.
This phenomenon has deep existential implications. Corinne Taylor in her paper, You are the fairest of them all, comments on what may happen if a mother lacks connection with the child and fails to offer mirroring: ‘Perhaps a mother with a rigid face gives the baby the sense of never having being at all.’* Its very existence may feel negated.
Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now draws spiritual parallels, inviting us to consider what we see in God’s face, his gaze, as we gaze at him in prayer. It’s as if God is the ultimate, absolute parent figure in whose face we are able to gain a true sense of who we actually are. A distorted image of God will create a distorted image of self.
Projection is a related psychological process whereby we project aspects of ourselves (often aspects we feel uncomfortable with) onto other people or even onto God. I may be aware of and focus on characteristics of others that I’m not aware of or deny in myself, even though others may recognise them as typical of me.
If I grow in awareness of my projections, I can grow in awareness of myself by noticing what I notice in others. It’s another form of mirroring. As a leader and coach, I can draw important lessons too: what do others see in my face; do my responses help others develop a truer and more-loved sense of self; do I reflect the light of God?
Christmas time. A special time to enjoy family, friends and festivities. For many of us, it’s a time off work, chance to relax, eat, drink and party. There is, however, a deeper meaning to the event, a meaning embedded in its very name: Christ-mas. For Christians, it represents a celebration of a unique and critical moment in history, the birth of Jesus Christ. This distant event has important implications for my work in leadership, OD, coaching and training.
The idea of God as a human child should shock, confuse and amaze us. After all, if God exists and if he really is everything the Bible says he is, e.g. all powerful, all knowing, an invisible being, it makes no sense to imagine all those qualities in a vulnerable, dependent, human baby. The arrival of Jesus, the transcendent become immanent, is a profoundly paradoxical event. Little wonder so many people today find it difficult to imagine, understand or believe.
I find it stimulating and humbling to reflect on this. It calls me to ask serious questions of myself, my life and my work. Whatever I’m doing, whatever role I’m playing, my work is essentially about people, developing people, releasing potential, building a better organisation, a better world. So I will share five short thoughts and meditations this Christmas kairos evokes for me. Please share your reflections and responses with me too. I’m keen to hear.
1. God as human. The appearance of God in human form (Gestalt) reminds me of the notion of contact in Gestalt psychology, a deep sense of presence and connection with people. It’s about intimacy, empathy, touch, being-with in the here and now. In my work, I sometimes become so focused on the task that I can lose touch with myself, with others, with God. Incarnation is about coming close. How can I develop and sustain a better quality of contact?
2. God as child. The Christ child reveals God at his most vulnerable, a willingness to take risks and to depend on others. It reminds me of notions of attachment in psychodynamic psychology. It sounds inconceivable to imagine God placing his life, his wellbeing, in human hands. Yet it challenges notions of arrogant, egotistical, macho leadership. It models humility, trust, a working with others to achieve a purpose. How can I become more humble and inclusive?
3. God as love. In becoming human, God enters human experience. Jesus’ loving, empathetic way of relating to people reminds me of notions of relationship, positive regard and authenticity in humanistic and person-centred psychology. He balances ‘grace’ with ‘truth’ in a way that I find very difficult. He demonstrates altruistic self-sacrifice, critical friendship and tough love. How can I be better and more consistent at putting others’ best interests first?
4. God as truth. The arrival of God in human history in such a dramatic, physical way challenges previous notions of God and of humanity. God challenges all presuppositions, cultural perspectives and traditions. This reminds me of addressing limiting beliefs in cognitive psychology, fixed Gestalts in Gestalt psychology and personal-social constructs in social constructionism. How can I work with others to explore and create fresh possibilities, fresh paradigms?
5. God as saviour. The Bible depicts Jesus Christ entering the world to save a humanity that is lost. This notion of lost-ness reminds me of ‘angst’ in existential and psychodynamic psychology, a deep feeling of alienation from oneself and others and from any sense of ultimate meaning and purpose. It’s as if Jesus resolves our alienation from God and the world to bring new hope. How can I ensure my work brings fresh meaning and hope to others?
I wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
I'm indebted to Rosabeth Moss Kanter for her wise insights and guidance on change leadership, especially in her excellent article, 'Managing the Human Side of Change'. I will share some of her insights and suggestions below along with some of my own and how these could look as guiding principles. I would be very interested to hear from others too...what principles have you found that make the greatest positive difference when dealing with human dimensions of change?
1. Loss of control
'How people greet change has to do with whether they feel in control of it or not. Change is exciting when it is done by us, threatening when it is done to us. Giving people chances for involvement can help them feel more committed to the change.'
We will involve people were possible in discussing, designing and planning changes that affect them.
(In what ways can you get people involved in the changes you are planning?)
2. Staying close
Leaders can be tempted to avoid contact with people affected by change in case they face criticism or questions they can’t answer. Staying closer to people during change enables communication and builds trust.
We will create maximum opportunities for people to engage with leaders throughout the change.
(What opportunities can you create to engage with people throughout the change?)
3. Excess uncertainty
'If people don’t know where the next step is going to take them, change can seem dangerous. Information, coupled with the leaders’ actions to make change seem safer, can convert resistance to commitment.'
We will communicate decisions and plans clearly and accessibly to build confidence for the future.
(What do people impacted by the change need to know to minimise uncertainty?)
4. Surprise surprise!
'People are easily shocked by decisions or requests suddenly sprung on them without groundwork or preparation. Give people advance notice, a warning, and a chance to adjust their thinking.'
We will share issues and decisions as early as possible to allow people time to adjust and respond.
(What do people need to hear now to help prepare them for the change?)
5. The difference effect
'Change requires people to become conscious of, and to question, familiar routines and habits. Maintaining some familiar sights and sounds, the things that make people feel comfortable and at home, is very important.'
We will emphasise what will stay the same alongside what will change.
(What good things can you safeguard to maintain a sense of continuity?)
6. Loss of face
'If accepting a change means admitting that the way things were done in the past was wrong, people are certain to resist. Commitment to change is ensured when past actions are put in perspective – as the apparently right thing to do then, but now times are different. This way, people do not lose face.'
We will affirm the past, including people’s contributions, and explain why change is needed now.
(What things can you do positively to affirm the past?)
7. Future competence
'Sometimes people resist change because of personal concerns about their future ability to be effective after the change: Can I do it, how will I do it, will I make it under the new conditions, do I have the skills to operate in a new way? We have to be sensitive enough to make sure that nobody feels stupid, that everyone can ask questions and that everybody has a chance to be a learner, to come to feel competent in new ways.'
We will affirm people’s willingness to learn new things and support them with their development.
(What could you do to enable people to meet future demands?)
8. Ripple effects
'Change sometimes disrupts other plans or projects, or even personal and family activities that have nothing to do with the job, and anticipation of those disruptions causes resistance to change. Effective change masters are sensitive to the ripples changes
cause. They introduce the change with flexibility so that, for example, people who have children can finish the school year before relocating or managers who want to finish a pet project can do so.'
We will work alongside those affected by change to find, where possible, win-win solutions.
(What is negotiable to make the change more workable for those affected?)
9. More work
'The effort it takes to manage things under routine circumstances needs to be multiplied when things are changing. While an employee is working harder, it certainly helps to know that your boss is acknowledging that extra effort and time.'
We will acknowledge the challenges of working through change and ensure people are rewarded.
(What can you do practically to affirm people working through the changes?)
10. Past resentments
'Anyone who has ever had a gripe against the organisation is likely to resist the organisation telling them they now have to do something new. Going forward can mean first going back – listening to past resentments and repairing past rifts.'
We will listen to people’s concerns from the past and take active steps to address them.
(What past hurts need to be dealt with in order to go forward positively?)
11. Dealing with loss
'Sometimes a change does create winners and losers. Sometimes people do lose status, clout or comfort because of the change. We all need a chance to let go of the past, to mourn it. Rituals or parting events to honour the past help us let go.'
We will honour those affected by change by marking endings and supporting through transition.
(What creative rituals could you do to celebrate the past and enable people to move on?)
12. Modelling values
The way leaders treat people during change reveals their true values. When leaders act honourably with love, care and respect, it builds trust, loyalty and hope for those who stay with the organisation.
We will model the organisation's values in how we lead the change.
(How will your values influence your decisions and behaviour?)
The can hit the ground with a clanking sound. It felt empty, painful somehow. The young woman had been sitting in her car, gazing across the countryside in the warm sunshine. She drank the drink then tossed the can through the open window. It looked wrong on the grass, an intrusion, out of place. It felt symbolic, enigmatic. The human paradox, our ability to love and enjoy nature and carelessly, thoughtlessly, to destroy it. It was selfism, nihilism, abandonment of compassion and principle.
Should I confront her, should I complain and chastise her? I felt angry, frustrated, a momentary sense of despair. Hold back, best not to speak, best to walk on. Pass by on the other side of the road. The girl looked at me and grinned, a sarcastic smile, a challenging look. I felt conflicted, annoyed but then convicted too. How quick I was to judge her. How fast I was to feel self righteous. The can felt like biblical 'sin', a scar on the landscape, and I felt its dark parallel, a cynical dynamic, tightening its grip within me too.
I became uncomfortably aware of how easily I react to things in others that I disown in myself. It's what Jesus exposed as psychodynamic projection with spiritual roots. As I walked on, I experienced a mysterious intuition, a flash of revelation in the midst of anti-revelation. It was as if God had emerged suddenly and unexpectedly as now-here in the apparent no-where. It took me by surpise as the spotlight turned from the girl to me. God holds the mirror in love and truth and now it's me he is inviting to change.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.